A question for many international students is whether they plan to return home. But as one masters student discovered, for one group, they may not have a home to return to. Mardi Chapman reports.
While climate change remains a largely abstract argument for many Australians, two Queensland institutions are already hosting international students for whom the term ‘climate change refugees’ is not far from reality.
Over 80 students from the Pacific nation of Kiribati are currently studying nursing in the state, courtesy of the federal government-funded Kiribati-Australia Nurses Initiative (KANI).
The unique project enables Kiribati students to obtain VET or university qualifications in nursing, a profession suffering from chronic workforce shortages worldwide.
Allanah Banning, KANI project manager at Griffith University, said Kiribati faced an uncertain future and its workforce would need transferable skills.
“Kiribati faces sustainability issues in the next 10-15 years such as the supply of fresh water for a young and growing population. That’s well before the problem of rising sea levels threatening the islands in 50 years time,” she said.
“English language skills and internationally recognised qualifications are going to be important if relocation of individuals or communities is to happen.”
With so much riding on its success, the project has carefully selected the students, embedded structured support and extra resources, and provided a choice of exit points.
Three cohorts of students were chosen from the best and brightest of Kiribati’s youth in 2007, 2008 and 2009. All received a four-month academic preparation program in Kiribati, including English language development and cultural adjustment training.
In Australia, students undertook another four-month tertiary preparation program before starting their diploma of nursing through the Metropolitan South Institute of TAFE (MSIT).
MSIT and Griffith have agreements in place linking their bachelor and diploma programs in nursing. Students who successfully complete the diploma can exit the program for careers as enrolled nurses, or articulate with credits into the bachelor program and a future as registered nurses.
About 25 students from the first cohort of Kiribati students are expected to graduate from the degree program in mid 2011.
Melissa Carey is one of two student contact officers for the KANI project at Griffith. Both registered nurses, Carey and her colleague provide assistance ranging from academic guidance to cultural liaison and social and emotional support for the students.
Carey said her charges were different from other international students. “They come from an isolated, traditional island culture so they benefit from advocates in addition to the usual student support services offered by the university.”
Carey is documenting the students’ experiences as part of her masters degree. She said feedback from the clinical placements had been positive.
She said logistical issues, such as finding suitable positions for students reliant on public transport, had been the biggest challenges.
“Bringing them in as cohorts rather than in ones or twos is part of the success, especially for students from collective societies. It is better for them to have more of a community around them,” she said.
Those with diplomas are being encouraged to register as enrolled nurses and look for part-time employment.
“It is always more difficult for graduates from a non-English speaking background to get jobs, so any work experience they can get now as an enrolled nurse will help them when they graduate with a degree,” Carey said.
Banning said Griffith wasn’t contractually obliged to help the Kiribati students find employment. But those who have grown close to the students feel a moral obligation to help, she said.
Carey hopes to follow the students’ experiences after they graduate. The students are naturally caring and compassionate but they will also need other personal attributes to thrive in the developed world’s healthcare systems, she said.
“It will be important to review the longer term outcomes of this project. Was it a good model of education? Was it what they needed?”
Banning said Griffith’s involvement in the KANI project was a commercial decision based on the university’s strengths and capacity to administer and deliver nursing education and the language development components of the overall program.
However the ‘feel good’ aspects of being involved in such a project have also come to the fore, she said.
“Everywhere in Kiribati is under-resourced. We’ve donated some computers and we’re looking at organising for the nursing students to do their final practicum in Kiribati, for an opportunity to give back to their community.”
Carey has marched alongside students carrying placards saying ‘Save Our Island Home’. She said while the students were aware of climate change and its impact on their vulnerable nation, it wasn’t in their nature to plan too far into the future.
Most of the students expect to stay in Australia. Kiribati will always be home but they know they are more likely to get employment here and to be able to send money home to support their families.Do you have an idea for a story?
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